Strong alliance: India-Japan strategic relations

With the reemergence of India friendly Shinzo Abe as the Prime Minister of Japan along with sinking Sino-Japanese ties over the Senkaku-Diaoyu islands and a very assertive behavior of China in the South and East China Sea, the strategic community would be keeping a close watch over the evolving India-Japan relations.

Japan till the end of last century lived under the shadow of cold war equations and maintained a very neutral relation with India limited largely to economic aid.

Shinzo Abe, who is considered to be favoring a strong alliance kind of relationship with India and has also declared his intent to adopt a very assertive policy vis a vis China, had in his previous brief stint as Prime Minister in 2006-07 strived for a closer strategic partnership with India and was very close to develop an understanding with India on civil nuclear cooperation.

On the prospects of emerging India-US strategic relations, Abe propagated during his previous tenure a quadrilateral alliance between US, Japan, Australia and India, which could not take off as Australia developed cold feet and India got worried because of strong Chinese backlash, because this was considered a move to encircle China in the region.

During his State visit to India in August, 2007 Abe initialed a Joint Statement with Manmohan Singh on a Roadmap for Strategic and Global partnership and immediately after his return to the office of the Prime Minister in December, 2012, Abe expressed his wish to expand the Japan- US security relationship  to India and Australia.

Huge potential

Abe’s policy of developing a strong alliance with India was followed up during the reign of Taro Aso when the defence ministers of two countries signed in October, 2008 a Joint Declaration on security cooperation.

Since the strategic and security cooperation can only be advanced and sustained on the sound basis of a vibrant economic and trade relationship, the two countries in February, 2011 under the Prime Ministership of Naoto Kan signed a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement.

The Japanese leaders have realized that unless an economic content is added to the relationship, strategic partnership cannot flourish on a hollow plank. Hence Japanese leaders have systematically promoted a policy to invest in Indian market by creating a favorable ground for themselves through the multibillion dollar Japanese funding and promoted Delhi Mumbai Industrial Corridor (DMIC) and Delhi Mumbai And Delhi Howrah freight corridor projects, which will create opportunities for hundreds of billions of dollars of investment and a huge new Indian market.

Japan is thus creating an opportunity for its economy by putting its money and technology to very good use in India as it has potentials of creating long term economic interdependence and mutual benefits. Japan understands very well that only an economically strong India can be of any assistance to them in furthering its strategic interests and pushing Japanese economy out of morass.

Thus a strong foundation has already been laid to strengthen the strategic partnership between the two countries which promises great potentials in promoting mutual strategic and economic interests. However there are compulsions both in Indian and Japanese domestic political environment which will limit and prevent the emergence of a strong alliance kind of relationships.

India wants a nuclear cooperation agreement with Japan, which any Japanese leader will not be able to grant in view of strong anti nuclear sentiments in the country, though the senior officials of the two countries are negotiating such deal and are pushing for its finalization during the forthcoming annual summit, which could not be held in mid December, 2012 because of Japanese elections.   

Though Abe has, on assumption of office again, spoken warmly of a strong relation with India, he is trying to find a way out from his domestic compulsions. In view of new international attention on the evolving security situation in the South and East China Sea and the new American Asia-pacific policy and the US declaration to re-deploy 60 percent of its naval resources in the Asia pacific region, new alliances are likely to emerge in the region as both US and Japan are once again wooing India to join the fold.

Since India has an interest in the maintenance of peace and stability in the maritime region as almost half of its international trade crosses through the South China Sea, India would like to develop partnerships with the countries in the region to protect its maritime trade and petroleum assets.

Since Japan is a major power in the region, which began to develop relations with India in a calibrated fashion, both the countries have now come to a very close understanding on various security issues.

In the beginning of last decade both the countries embarked on a strategic partnership when Mr Yoshiro Mori, the then Prime Minister during his landmark visit in August, 2000 after his talks with Atal Bihari Vajpayee, decided to establish strategic partnership in 21st century.

According to an official Indian document, Japan and India view each other as partners that are capable of responding to global and regional challenges. The document further says that in the above context and in view of the current international situation, it has been decided to reinforce the strategic focus of the global partnership.  

Strategic balance

The resolve to look after each other’s strategic interests makes it obvious that India and Japan would be working together to promote each others strategic interest. Both Japan and India are facing threats to their territorial integrity from an aggressive China. In this background the coming together of Japan and India have the potentials of tilting the strategic balance in Asia pacific region. The Chinese offensive behavior in South China Sea and East China Sea is impacting on the strategic and maritime interests of both the countries.

Hence the regular high level political and military exchanges between the two countries are being watched with interest in the region.

Japan and India are not only holding annual summit meetings, both the countries are also deepening naval relations. In a significant development both the countries are now holding annual joint naval exercises and annual defence ministers meeting. Both the countries are holding annual 2+2 dialogue in the format of defence and foreign secretaries sitting together and discussing mutual relations in a comprehensive manner.

The newfound proximity in relations has also encouraged both the countries to enter into a trilateral dialogue format with USA. This signals a paradigm shift in the strategic balance of power.

Presently, the three countries are not positioning themselves as counter to China and appear to discuss mundane issues as joint development cooperation in Africa, climate issues etc. But the coming together of the three nations is causing concern in Chinese strategic community.  

The trilateral dialogue may not have discussed ways and means of containing China as all the three vehemently deny the existence of such a policy or design against China, but the evolving understanding among the three countries on the issues affecting the maritime security and freedom of navigation in South and East China Sea may lead them to openly speak with one voice against the assertive behavior of China.

China’s assertive behavior has the potential of destabilizing the maritime region and can impact the free flow of Indian exports and imports, which constitute more than half of India’s international trade.

Since the strategic interests of both the countries converge on many counts and as the Japanese government now wants to shift its industrial manufacturing base from China to India sky is the limit for a very strong relation between the two countries.

Strong India-Japan strategic relations have the potential of creating an impact on the strategic balance in the Asia Pacific region; hence the strategic community will seriously watch the evolving India- Japan relations under the new Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.